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What You’re Usually Unaware in Videogames — The Musical Ingredient

There’s nothing like it in any other industry.

Photo by Enrique Vidal Flores via Unsplash

Once videogames evolved from single beeps and boops, (e.g. Atari’s Pong game,1972), onto a full soundtrack, music became one of the most important elements in a videogame.

You might think that music is there to fill a gamers’ awkward silence while he/she stares obsessively at the screen. But don’t be fooled by that funny looking half-open mouth face, they’re very aware of the sound element.

Although it’s mostly processed at an unconscious level, music is central to people’s gameplay experience.

Music Wrapped Around the Gamer’s Decisions

Movies have background music that follow a linear timeline. No matter how many times you watch a movie, you’ll always hear the same songs and in the same order.

Music is presented in a predefined sequence.

But videogames have another totally different approach. Depending on what you decide to do while playing, you get to listen to different music environments.

Music is at your command, your actions control it.

Let’s say you’re with your strong medieval character walking by the countryside and admiring the view. What a wonderful landscape artwork, you think to yourself. You just want to explore the terrain aimlessly just for the sake of it.

This journey you’ve begun is accompanied by a lovely flute melody on top of a string quartet. It’s perfect for your virtual hike.

Screenshot from a Skyrim Gameplay on Youtube

But out of nowhere, you suddenly get attacked by a swordsman. Shit! You weren’t expecting that.

There’s this villain that wants to kill you at all costs. You’re taken out of your nirvana state and brought back to the harsh reality of medieval times where you can’t let your guard down.

You get into survival mode to try to stay alive. It will be a pity if you die and return to god knows where, since you can’t remember your last quick-save.

Screenshot from a Skyrim Gameplay on Youtube

Anyhow, if you listen to the music, it changed as fast as this villain appeared. Your actions actually triggered a sudden change in the music and thus you ended up tense and alert (as you should be).

This is an example of a dynamic soundtrack. Music responds to your decisions in the game. You might not even get to hear all the music cues composed for that videogame if you don’t get to certain checkpoints (e.g. side missions). What a pity for the composer, so much music written and not all of it gets to be listened to.

Anyway, composers do have quite a challenge when creating the soundtrack. They have to be able to write music that can transmit specific information (“you died”) and other cues that awaken different feelings depending on the scene. Plus, music has to be precisely structured so that transitions (like the knight that attacked you while exploring the terrain) feel natural from one “song” to another at any given time. All these music cues are triggered by your gameplay experience.

It ain’t easy!

“Game Over” Music in Super Mario Bros via Youtube

Gameplay is the structure composers use to create videogame music. The way you play changes how the music is being displayed around you. It’s a dynamic narrative.

The story may vary depending on the way you interact with the game. You might die a minute after the last cut scene, or chose to do side quests before engaging with a big boss. It’s different every time.

So music has to be as flexible as much as the gamer playing the game.

This kind of music-making is called adaptive music. Music that adjusts to events triggered by the gamer’s choices throughout the game.

Journey, an indie game from 2012, does this wonderfully. It’s the first-ever videogame soundtrack nominated for a Grammy. The composer, Wintory, worked very closely with the sound design team and the game developers to be able to link the player’s interactions as closely as possible with the music taking place at any given moment. When you get to play, it feels like the orchestra is playing live while you’re flying around through all these stunning landscapes. Music is key to the success of the game.

Now, there are different techniques that enable a more dynamic approach to music-making.

  • The most basic technique is to trigger a song when a certain thing happens in the game. There’s no transition, just a change of song. It’s usually linked to checkpoints and it feels abrupt. For instance, you might know in Mario Bros that acquiring a star or getting to the end of a level triggers a certain music cue.
  • Music can also be arranged in a way in which part A of the song can be followed by either parts B1, B2, B3, or B4 depending on what’s happening in the game. For example, your character might interact with different objects in a room so with each new interaction, part A might be linked to a different part B. And all these versions appear smoothly without the player even realizing it.
  • Music can also be arranged in a way that actively participates in what is happening on the scene. For instance, a fighting sequence can have a musical composition that doesn’t have a clear rhythm and so each gunshot you press on your keyboard or controller is accompanied by a musical event (e.g. a short violin bow effect). You practically act as the conductor of an orchestra. Watch this fight scene from Bioshock’s’ (Infinite) to get a grasp of this technique.

In a way, you‘re the music composer in the game, or at least the conductor. Each decision translates into different musical cues.

Psyche — Changes in Time Perception

Photo by Aron Visuals via Unsplash

If you’ve played any videogame you’ve noticed that you lose track of time. Or at least that happens in a good game.

You don’t seem to have to eat, sleep, drink, or go to the bathroom. Every other necessity disappears while you’re hooked to the game.

That kind of deep immersive experience is what lures people to play, and music is just one of the variables that helps achieve it.

Music can set you in a 40’s New York era among Italian family disputes like in The Godfather game (2006), or transport you to an ancient feudal Japan amidst ninja and samurai warriors in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice(2019).

But what if we can isolate the music variable and see how it affects our sense of time passing by? Can music really change or distort our sense of time?

study found that people assessed time differently whether they played a videogame with or without music. When music was added to the game, people underestimated the duration of how much they’ve been playing. This was more prominent for likable music. People became less aware of the time factor when they liked what they heard, and were less able to track it appropriately.

Music can affect the immersive experience especially when it’s music that the players like. As in other activities, having fun leads to underestimating time duration.

Positive emotions help you get into a state of flow that makes all other factors around you simply disappear. And music can help achieve this state.

Final Thoughts

Music helps create this illusion of being inside a game world as if were an actual space. So even though music is treated as a background element, it’s far from true.

It contributes to the sensory immersion and it even removes outside stimuli that might shift your attention to the outer world.

Different techniques in music-making are used to achieve this flow state in the gamer’s gameplay experience. Composers shift from a linear timeline used in movie soundtracks, to a more interactive and dynamic experience. Music is continuously interacting with the game’s script and the gamer acts as the conductor of this grand symphony without realizing it.

Next time you play a game pay attention and you’ll see.

By Pavle Marinkovic on August 22, 2020.

Are you curious about the world of sound and music? Learn how music can enhance a plant’s growth, the way sound changes our sense of taste, understand the music industry, and much more! Join my newsletter to embark on this journey of sound awareness.

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